#41. Glasgow Sunday (2005).
Every music fan has a time travel concert wish list. I certainly have one. It’s a detailed selection of historic gigs I would visit if I had a time machine, shows I wish I had either been alive for or aware of at the time they happened. You know, Hendrix at Woodstock-level events. Shows that, even while they were happening, people could tell they were witnessing something monumental. Now, granted, my list includes a lot of pretty obscure bands, but there’s no doubt that Jandek performing live for the first time on October 17, 2004 would be there.
Alas, it would be another few years before I’d even hear of Jandek, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for those in the small-ish crowd at the Arches in Glasgow, Scotland, who were aware of the Rep and his work. The first ever Jandek show took place as an unannounced part of the Instal Festival, an experimental music showcase then in its fourth year. The Rep took the stage with two British musicians who would go on to be cornerstones of his live act for the next two years, drummer Alex Neilson and bassist Richard Youngs, and slammed through an eight-song, 60-minute set of entirely new material.
I’m honestly not sure how I would have felt if I’d been in the room at the time. I don’t know that I would have been able to pay much attention to the music, given the astronomical odds against what I was seeing. After 26 years of mystery, here was the Rep himself, playing electric guitar and letting loose his tortured moan. Impossibly thin, older than any picture we had seen, dressed in black and wearing a hat, refusing to even acknowledge the audience. In true Jandek fashion, Corwood did not confirm that a Jandek show had taken place until six months later, when the CD of the performance was released.
I cannot imagine how exciting this must have been for people in the know. It’s a little like being at a random book fair and seeing Thomas Pynchon show up and read some new work. Coming to it later, Glasgow Sunday is a fascinating document. It is simultaneously pure Jandek and unlike any Jandek recording before it. This music is entirely improvised, save for the lyrics. The Rep plays electric, but in a style reminiscent of Telegraph Melts, not the more recent solo efforts. He conjures up a mighty racket, attacking the instrument like a dog that has been let off of a chain.
Neilson and Youngs are given the unenviable task of being the first musicians to try to navigate a Jandek live performance. The Rep’s playing isn’t beholden to time or tempo, and as a rhythm section they need to provide a base for the cacophony coming from his amp. They do this masterfully, as if they’d been playing with the Rep for years. Neilson’s drumming is not nearly the barbaric thrashing heard on the early electric records – it’s almost jazz-influenced, while being as propulsive as it needs to be. Youngs plays the only recognizable melodic figures here, and his lines pop up like bubbles beneath the din.
Even within this framework, the songs manage to be diverse and interesting. Opener “Not Even Water” is a ten-minute rush of sound, the Rep screaming that “the stars are sinking” and he doesn’t know what to do. These songs are largely about depression, isolation and the blues, as heard on both “Don’t Want to Be” and “Blue Blue World.” The latter of those numbers is slower, more drawn-out, like second track “Where I Stay,” and both feature Neilson driving the tone with his restrained yet complex playing.
The highlight, though, is “Real Wild,” an absolutely signature Jandek moment. There’s a bit about halfway through when the Rep, who up until now has been singing about staying home and doing laundry, makes this announcement: “I made the decision to get real wild.” The audience goes absolutely nuts at this, and it’s easy to understand why. This show was, to the amazement of many, released on DVD about a year later, and seeing that moment – looking at the Rep’s face as his decision to play live was validated – is priceless.
I cannot overstate how much of a tectonic shift this album represents. The reception to it, I’m sure, kept the Rep going on this path – he’d perform an astounding 11 times in 2005. From here on out, the live music would slowly overtake the studio output, and would be where the Rep’s artistic restlessness was fully explored. The studio albums had already started to sound the same by this point, but the live records would remain endlessly inventive. Glasgow Sunday is the start of Jandek’s second act, which is still going to this day. It’s also a pretty terrific hour of noise.
As a final note, two traditions begin here. First, the convention of naming the live albums after the city they were recorded in and the day of the week on which they happened, and second, the practice (mostly still followed) of adorning the covers with photos of landmarks that are nowhere near the locations in the album titles.
#42. Raining Down Diamonds (2005).
After the excitement of the live album, it’s a little disheartening to return to the same studio path we have been on since I Threw You Away. Raining Down Diamonds is the tenth of these single-instrument solo records, and the third to be performed on bass. While it’s still novel to hear the Rep in this setting, this sounds very much like the other two, which shouldn’t be a surprise.
What’s interesting about this one? The Rep seems to use the bass more to set a foundation here, sticking to a few root notes and letting that voice out over them. In short, he’s playing it more like a bass than like a guitar here, keeping the rumble going without jumping to the higher notes as much. The lyrics are about loneliness, except for “You Ancient,” which seems to be about the gods of food, and “New Rendezvous,” an encouraging message straight out of a self-help book: “So be thankful for all that you’ve got, and you’ll get much more than you had…” There’s a new version of the hymn-like “Take My Will,” originally on Glad to Get Away, and it sounds nothing like the original take.
There isn’t anything wrong with Raining Down Diamonds, per se. It just follows the pattern of the recent solo releases, and it was issued in the wake of the most exciting Jandek album… well, probably ever. It is suitably creepy and intimate, and finds him refining his bass style – he’d make the fretless bass part of his live repertoire before long. But it isn’t anything special, and in the post-live era, it needs to be special to stand out.
Listen to the new “Take My Will.”
#43. Khartoum (2005).
I am not sure how the Rep did it, but his acoustic guitar playing on Khartoum feels even harsher and more brittle than usual. The physical sound reminds me of a shower of glass needles, and when the Rep gets aggressive here, that sound is almost confrontational. That’s the main selling point of this one, which finds the Rep in familiar territory again, strumming dissonantly tuned strings with no rhythm and extending his moaning vocal notes over them like spirits floating over a foggy field.
Khartoum is the capital of Sudan, and the title track here offers no hints as to why the Rep bestowed that moniker upon it. It’s a song about being left behind, and most of Khartoum follows suit. The whole thing feels like a breakup album, with the Rep lamenting his loss and talking about self-harm. He’s “at the mercy of (his) brain,” he’s “stuck in a chair,” he tears himself to pieces. Throughout he sings about wanting to go to the spirit world, and the stutter-strummed “I Shot Myself,” a highlight, is about metaphorical suicide.
So yeah, it’s dark. The pitch-blackness, the energy of the playing and the almost vicious sound of the thing makes Khartoum one of the more interesting and engaging of these single-instrument records. The cover photo, of the Rep with a beard in a religious headdress, also marks this one as different. Perhaps not different enough, given that it is the eleventh of these albums, but there is still life in this phase of Jandek, and Khartoum finds it.
Listen to “I Shot Myself.”
#44. Khartoum Variations (2006).
This is exactly what it sounds like: an alternate version of the Khartoum album. This is the first time the Rep has released a completely different take on the same set of lyrics, and I have to admit, it’s a real surprise. It raises so many questions for me about the Rep’s process. Since the music is fully improvised, I have always assumed that whatever comes out on the first take is what we hear. But Khartoum Variations makes me question that assumption, and I find myself wondering if alternate takes exist of other Jandek albums as well. And if so, why are we hearing this one, and not the others?
The prevailing theory is that Khartoum Variations was the Rep’s first try at performing these lyrics, and that makes some sense to my ears. The sound is flatter, the performance less energetic. Listen to this version of “I Shot Myself.” On Khartoum proper, that song is a fiery explosion of wrist-breaking aggression, and here it’s laconic, almost sleepy. It’s not a bad take, and if the Khartoum version did not exist, I’d probably not have given this one a second thought. It fits right in with the Rep’s pre-Khartoum acoustic style. But I can definitely imagine the Rep listening back to this, feeling a little unsatisfied with it, and making the changes that led to the more interesting main album.
So why are we hearing these takes, then? I have no idea. The notion that these versions came first is just a theory as well. It’s a mystery why these two approaches to these same sentiments sit side by side, and why “Fork in the Road,” the closing track on Khartoum, does not appear here. (Maybe it was written between the two sessions?) The differences between the albums may not even be apparent to people who are not immersed in the Jandek sound. For those of us who are, these two mirror images comprise one of our more interesting peeks at the method behind this madness.
#45. Newcastle Sunday (2006).
While the Rep was working out new approaches to take in the studio, the stage became his most exciting creative outlet. By the time Newcastle Sunday was released, there had been a dozen Jandek shows, and the diversity on display was remarkable. I don’t want to make it sound like the studio albums had become tedious, even though there’s some truth to that. But one listen to Newcastle Sundaywill confirm that the live recordings had quickly become the ones to wait for.
This album documents the second ever Jandek show, recorded at the Sage in Gateshead on May 22, 2005. It features the same lineup that played the first ever Jandek show: the Rep on electric guitar with Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums. If you’re expecting the same unholy racket, well, you’ll get it, but there are a couple differences this time. First, this concert ran close to 90 minutes, necessitating the first Jandek double-CD release. (A whole new pricing category on the typewritten discography page!) That extra length gives the trio time and space to stretch out, and it’s evident.
Second, the Rep uses a swirly, semi-clean guitar tone for the whole show, giving this a very different feel from the more abrasive Glasgow outing. It’s not a true comparison, but the tone reminds me of the Cure, and hearing the same nimble bass and percussion underneath the freeform web the Rep spins here is fascinating. Themes of depression, leaving and being left abound, as well as a song about facing the death penalty (“Locked Up”), but in contrast to the studio recordings, the Rep sounds so alive here, so energized. His vocals are wild, moaning and stretching into falsetto, and it’s clear that performing with these musicians invigorates him.
As historic as the first show is, this one is more of a showcase for the intense din that the O.G. Jandek trio creates. It’s long, it’s chaotic, sometimes it’s pure noise. But it’s pulsing with life. Even when things slow down for the expansive closer “Shadow of the Clouds,” there’s an energy to this that the Rep will try and not quite succeed to capture in the studio. Glasgow Sunday could have been an anomaly, but Newcastle Sunday makes it clear that live Jandek is the new heart of Jandek.
A quick note: Gateshead is not Newcastle, of course. But the castle on the cover is in Kent, which is neither place, so I guess it works in a weird way.
Listen to “Locked Up.”
#46. What Else Does the Time Mean (2006).
The Rep is on the front cover of this one with an axe. Appropriately enough, it’s back to the electric guitar here for an album that sounds like the sonic sequel to The End of it All. There’s a lot of single-string playing, a lot of rhythmless picking and strumming, a lot of low-moan vocals and a lot of lyrics about loneliness. The opening 16-minute “My Own Way” is the album in miniature, but there are seven additional songs, and the whole thing adds up to an hour.
The Rep still plays the electric guitar like no one else, and if this were your first Jandek album, you’d be as interested in just what on earth is happening here as I was when I first heard this playing and singing style. It’s still remarkable in its uniqueness, but this is the fourth solo electric guitar album and the 13th in this run of single-instrument solo records, and they’re becoming easier to predict. There are six more of these albums to go, and while that seems like a lot, it also at the time felt like this type of output could go on infinitely.
It’s a strange analogy, but Jandek albums were starting to feel like AC/DC albums, repeating the same methods of music-making. What Else Does the Time Mean clearly is just as intimate and personal as the Rep has ever been, but on a pure musical level the live albums were offering so much more by this point. This is a fine example of late-period Jandek in the studio, but with the Jandek concert experience gaining steam, it’s a hard one to remember.
Listen to “Walls Down.”
#47. Glasgow Monday (2006).
And this is a perfect case in point. How can anyone concentrate on the samey-sounding studio records when something like Glasgow Monday exists? Recorded at the Center for Contemporary Arts on May 23, 2005 – one day after Newcastle Sunday – this show found the Rep playing piano on stage for the first time. Accompanied again by Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on percussion, the entire 90-minute show is devoted to an extended piece called “The Cell.”
These longer pieces, subdivided into parts, would become more common, but this is the first one, and there’s an element of excitement there. The Rep intends us to listen to this as a single work, and the lyrics bear that out. An epic poem of self-analysis, the different movements of “The Cell” mostly all begin with the same question: “What do I have?” The answers are unclear at the beginning: some ability to pay the bills, an insight from the past, a ship without a crew. The Rep talks himself out of hope each time. In part three, he dreams of dying, but fears that life will just start again for him. In part five, he regrets never choosing connections that would lead to grief: “I took the other road, the one that left me sullen here.”
The music is slow and deliberate. The Rep has some utility on the piano – he stays in key, likely by avoiding sharps and flats – and keeps his fingers moving. No one would ever mistake him for a concert pianist, but his rudimentary melodies do set a mood effectively. Youngs mostly plays bowed double bass, providing a foundation and staying out of the way, and Neilson is there for accents and flourishes. The focus is squarely on the Rep, and he sings “The Cell” in a restrained, breathy way that fits the sparse instrumentation. It’s like nothing the Rep has ever given us, an entirely new side to Jandek, and it’s captivating.
The ending of “The Cell” is uncharacteristic as well. After giving himself no reason to believe for more than an hour, the ninth part concludes with hope. “In the cell I have possibilities,” he sings. “I’ll lay down for weeks, whatever it takes, it’s not concluded.” It’s the most beautiful moment in the Jandek catalog thus far. I’ve still never heard anything else quite like Glasgow Monday. It must have been quite an experience to see it live. It also affirms the Rep’s commitment to pushing himself artistically – it’s only his third ever show, and he’s doing this. The stage is where the Rep’s artistic restlessness will be fully expressed, and this is the first real indication of how restless he will be.
Listen to “The Cell: Prelude.”
#48. Austin Sunday (2006).
Jandek played America for the first time on August 28, 2005, choosing the Scottish Rite Theatre in Austin, Texas as the site. It’s interesting to me that the Rep is from Houston, but wouldn’t play a Jandek show there until 2009. Austin, however, would be a frequent stop in these early days. Joining the Rep for this first Austin performance were two drummers, Nick Hennies and Chris Cogburn, and bassist Juan Garcia. It is here that the Rep develops what will become his signature collaborative practice: building an ad hoc band out of nearby musicians and rehearsing with them as little as possible.
If the idea is to put himself in different contexts and bring a new feel to each show, it works tremendously well here. The Rep plays electric guitar, but this 90-minute show sounds nothing at all like the Glasgow and Newcastle dates. Part of it is that the Rep doesn’t seem to share the same intuitive sense with these musicians as he does with Youngs and Neilson – they follow along behind him instead of driving things forward. That means that most of this music is slower and more reflective, the Rep moving at his own pace instead of responding to an active beat. On “The Police” he sets a more aggressive tone, but the smattering of percussion doesn’t turn it into a rock song.
What we get, then, is something new. It’s more tentative, more uncertain, and the push and pull between the Rep and his accompanists gives this thing a strange and appealing character. This works well with the lyrics, which are full of self-doubt, the Rep lamenting his own ugliness and comparing himself to a lonely dog. There are certainly times here, like on “Run Away,” when it seems like no one on stage quite knows what to do next, but that suits the character of this show. Even with all that, the funny “Wine You Devil” and the closing “Let Me Try Again” feel like successes. This one, more than many other Jandek shows, can sound like undirected noise to the uninitiated (and sometimes to the initiated, too). But it’s never less than fascinating.
Listen to “The Police.”
#49. The Ruins of Adventure (2006).
This is where I came in. When I discovered Jandek in early 2007, The Ruins of Adventure was the most current album. It holds a sentimental place for me for that reason, even though I don’t think too highly of it as a piece of work. It’s another bass-and-vocals studio album, and aside from an increased tendency to bend the strings, creating a rubbery feel to the foundation beneath his vocals, this one is very similar to the three previous bass-and-vocals studio albums. Heck, the cover is just a zoomed-in portion of the photo on the cover of What Else Does the Time Mean, as if the Rep couldn’t be bothered to come up with something new.
On its own, The Ruins of Adventure is interesting. The Rep plays the bass the way he would two years later in Ann Arbor, at the only Jandek concert I have attended. Which is to say, he plays bass like no one else ever has, randomly striking the strings and creating an uneasy, seasick setting for his voice. The lyrics find the Rep going through a familiar cycle, trying to open up and be with someone (“Completely Yours,” “Mysteries of Existence”) and ending up alone and depressed (the title track). There’s an element of anger to this one as well, as he lashes out at depression itself. The final lyrics: “I won’t give an inch to you, you rotten thing, I won’t fall in your hole.”
As I’ve said a few times, there’s nothing specifically wrong with these single-instrument studio albums. The Ruins of Adventure is just as compelling as Shadow of Leaves and Raining Down Diamonds. But it offers nothing that those two did not. Outside of Jandek Land, there isn’t anything at all like The Ruins of Adventure, and were you to pick it up on its own, it would take you on a journey all its own. Inside of Jandek Land, though, this is another in a long line of records that follow the same template, and they tend to blend together. The Rep again put all of himself into this, and like all of these solo studio albums, it’s worth closer attention. But despite its place in my personal Jandek history, I never seek this one out.
Listen to “Mysteries of Existence.”
#50. Manhattan Tuesday (2007).
This one, on the other hand, I have never stopped listening to. Manhattan Tuesday was the first Jandek album I picked up when it came out – my first “new” Jandek album – and the music here still bowls me over. If I were to compile a short list of favorite Jandek albums, this would be on it. I don’t even need to provide caveats with this one. It’s just fascinating music, by any definition.
Manhattan Tuesday documents the fifth-ever Jandek show, recorded at the Anthology Film Archives on September 6, 2005. It features the most expansive Jandek ensemble to date, including drummer Chris Corsano, double bassist Matt Heyner and guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. All of these players have solid histories and reputations within the free jazz and experimental music worlds, particularly Connors, who has worked with Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and John Fahey, among others. This is something of an all-star Jandek band, and the Rep used them to create a haunting work far outside his usual frame of reference.
The single extended piece here is called “Afternoon of Insensitivity,” and it lasts an hour and a half. The Rep plays keyboards here, set to a spectral organ sound, and his slow roaming across the keys fits in beautifully with the softer beat Corsano and Heyner lay down. Connors plays subtle yet massive atmospheres over this, and the effect is like driving through a windswept wasteland, or swimming through a thick ocean. It’s such an effective atmosphere that I don’t mind that it’s essentially the same for 90 minutes. I don’t want it to end.
The lyrics find the Rep not so much insensitive as insensate, forcing himself to breathe through his depression and lethargy. There’s such despair here, rendered in verse after verse and sung from a place of unbearable solitude. It’s ironic, of course, that one of the Rep’s loneliest and bleakest pieces about isolation has been realized through a pitch-perfect collaboration with others. Like “The Cell,” this one ends hopefully, with the Rep making connections again through the fog of his sadness. Even within music this chillingly dark, there is hope.
I have not really been able to say this about previous Jandek albums, but I unreservedly love Manhattan Tuesday. This one transcends curiosity and fascination for me and becomes just awe-inspiring. I enjoy watching the DVD of this one, too, but often I prefer to conjure my own mental images while it’s playing. Fifty albums in, the Rep has come up with something magical. And like all improvised music, it’s ephemeral – he’ll never quite do something like this again.
#51. Brooklyn Wednesday (2007).
How do you follow up something as hypnotic as “Afternoon of Insensitivity”? If you are the Rep, you take the stage the very next night and play a mammoth rock show. Brooklyn Wednesday consists of two sets of music over two hours and 40 minutes, recorded at the Issue Project Room on September 7, 2005. The Rep plugged in his electric guitar again for this one, and brought drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Matt Heyner from the previous night’s show with him. The result is Corwood’s first box set, issued on four CDs in a slipcase. It’s a beautiful-looking thing, and the music inside is absolutely thunderous.
Where Corsano and Heyner laid back in Manhattan, creating a mood, here they create a racket. The first set is a mighty noise, driven by Corsano’s straightforward yet complex drumming. Together he and Heyner discover an interesting truism: the stronger the rhythm is, the more the Rep is able to absolutely freak out atop it – his aggressive strumming here is wild and all over the place, but the rhythm section grounds it. Highlights of this first set include “Obscure Physics,” in which the Rep declares he’s got the blues, and the closing “I Love You,” the most straightforwardly romantic song the Rep has given us. Hearing him repeat the title phrase over a slowed-down crawl is as surreal as any lyrical dream imagery in his catalog.
For the second set, the Rep trades in for a fretless electric guitar and Heyner switches to bowed double bass. The effect is something a little softer, a little more spaced out, a little stranger. It’s an effective change-up, as Corsano continues his blocky beats while the Rep fits in around them. “City Pounding Down” is a highlight of this style, with its relentless slow rhythm giving the Rep and Heyner all the foundation they need to fill the space. The 11-minute “Tequila Girl” just needs to be heard, the Rep declaring “we’re gonna have a party” and “be my tequila girl” over what can only be described as chaos.
Brooklyn Wednesday is a marathon, but further proof that the beating heart of the Jandek project now lies in these on-stage collaborations. It’s impressive that this was recorded only one day after Manhattan Tuesday, since the two shows bear no resemblance at all to one another. Together they show off just how impressive live Jandek can be. They also delineate the two sides of this project nicely. Manhattan Tuesday feels like eavesdropping on an intimate confession, while Brooklyn Wednesday feels like a show, a party to which everyone is invited.
#52. The Myth of Blue Icicles (2008).
This one is particularly popular among Jandek fans, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Or rather, I’m not sure why this one garners such praise and not others that sound exactly like it. The Myth of Blue Icicles consists of four songs performed on acoustic guitar and vocals, and it’s over in 38 minutes. For an acoustic studio Jandek album, it is certainly not out of the box – the Rep’s playing and singing is in line with previous acoustic albums, his lyrics are about loneliness and a need for connection. The guitar sounds close to standard tuning this time, but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish this one from Khartoum Variations.
I specifically said Variations because the aggression and brittle sound of Khartoum is absent here. This is a slow dirge of an album, the Rep’s long, low vocals stretching out over sparse playing. He announces that it’s his birthday on “Blue Icicles,” and that he will bend the world to it, like he bends his body to his will. The 14-minute “The Daze” feels like another death dream, while the comparatively brief “There’s No Door” seems to be about the dangers of taking risks.
All of this is fine acoustic Jandek, more of a refinement than a progression. Listening to Jandek’s oeuvre in order certainly provides enough diversity to appreciate an acoustic guitar album when one appears – it’s a change after more than four hours of live electric material. But I can’t say why this one is spoken of more favorably than the ones before it or after it. It is exactly as interesting as those, in exactly the same way.
Listen to “Blue Icicles.”
#53. Glasgow Friday (2008).
After five shows in other locations, Glasgow Friday finds the Rep returning to the scene of his first on-stage appearance: the Arches in Scotland as part of 2005’s Instal Festival, on October 14. This time people knew Jandek would be performing, and you can hear how excited the crowd is between songs. This show reunites the Jandek Trio, with the Rep on electric guitar, Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums. In a lot of ways, it is a better, clearer-sounding version of Glasgow Sunday, the three musicians tearing the roof off with abandon.
From the opening salvo, the wild 13-minute take-off on Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” it’s clear this is a band that knows each other well. They know how to take and yield the spotlight, the rhythm section driving the proceedings as often as the Rep does. It would be easy for the more seasoned musicians to drop a steady beat and allow the Rep to make noise over it, but they don’t do that. They listen to what the Rep is doing and change up their patterns based on it, which is how their work ends up sounding so nimble and practiced.
Glasgow Friday is ten songs in about 80 minutes, and even though about half of the numbers are slower, like “This Wasted Life,” the set is over too quickly. The distortion is dialed down for slow-motion lament “If I Could Be With You,” but crashes right back in for nine-minute highlight “These Kokomos.” It’s just fun: “They shake me up,” the Rep sings in an unrestrained yelp. “Arms of a Stranger” is an off-kilter yet somehow strangely melancholy closer, and rather than thrash their way out of the club, they bring the curtain down slowly.
It would be exactly seven months before the Rep would play with Youngs and Neilson again. Glasgow Friday is an argument for bringing them back more often. The original Jandek trio sounds like no other Jandek ensemble. There’s a clear connection between the three players, and the two more practiced musicians truly set the template for collaborating with the Corwood Representative. In order to do it right, you need to be willing to fully immerse yourself in his world, and that’s exactly what they do here.
No tracks available online.
#54. Glasgow Sunday 2005 (2008).
Two days later, on October 16, 2005, the Rep played two sets of music at the Arches in Glasgow that were spellbinding in completely new ways. Both sets are here on Glasgow Sunday 2005, and it is bar none the strangest Jandek live album yet. It also continues the Rep’s apparent mission to expand the sonic definition of Jandek at every possible opportunity.
Each of these sets is about 25 minutes long. The first, called “The Grassy Knoll,” is an absolutely mesmerizing spoken word piece detailing how two subjects in a mind control experiment escape with their lives. The Rep’s oration is accompanied by guitar soundscapes, played by Loren Mazzacane Connors of Manhattan Tuesday fame. Between segments of the story, the Rep plays a mournful harmonica, and though it should be jarring, it somehow works with the atmosphere. Connors spins horizon-wide guitar lines worthy of Robin Guthrie as the Rep guides his story toward the bright light of its conclusion.
The second set is called “Tribal Ether,” and bears no resemblance to the first. The Rep plays drums (and yes, on the DVD you can see him play drums in his inimitable fashion) while Alan Licht provides swirly, loud oceans of guitar and Heather Leigh Murray plays lap steel guitar like a theremin and sings haunting, wordless vocals. The effect is like a horror film for your ears, and they keep this up for a quarter of an hour. I don’t have words for how unsettling and enveloping this sound is. It’s easy to get lost in, but you may never be heard from again.
If you want an encapsulation of the live Jandek mission statement, I think this is it. Collaborate with as many interesting people as possible – and these people are all very interesting – and let the music guide what happens. The results are artistically fascinating, from the big rock shows to the extended suites like “The Cell” and “Afternoon of Insensitivity” to the stunning noise conjured here. Unpredictability has always been one of my favorite musical traits, and Glasgow Sunday 2005 is nothing if not unpredictable.
Listen to “Tribal Ether.”
#55. London Tuesday (2008).
Of course, there’s something to be said for sounding like yourself, too. For all the diversity on display over the previous eight Jandek shows, there’s one thing he still hadn’t done in front of people: play acoustic guitar and sing, on his own. This, of course, is what Jandek is best known for, and his concert repertoire had not, until this point, included an opportunity to see him do it. In some ways, the idea is very strange. Acoustic Jandek has always felt like peering into a window while an extremely intimate ritual unfolds. We’re not supposed to be watching, and yet we are. So to be invited in to see how the Rep generates this sound is both exciting and uneasy.
The concert took place on October 18, 2005, two days after Glasgow Sunday 2005. (I appreciate that these three shows, performed so close together, were all released back to back.) The setting was St. Giles in the Fields, a nearly 300-year-old church in London’s West End. For about 65 minutes, the Rep treated a small, entranced audience to an eight-part piece called “No Mind Was a Good Mind.” The guitar appears to be in a standard tuning, and the sound is bright and clear. The Rep’s playing somehow sounds inspired here – it’s not appreciably different from the style on albums like The Myth of Blue Icicles, but the atmosphere of the church and the energy of the live setting somehow differentiate this.
As for the piece itself, it’s remarkably bleak, even for Jandek. He starts the first part by begging for forgiveness, admitting that he made a mistake, and his self-assessment gets darker and darker as the lyric winds on. In part four he’s a cancer that eats healthy tissue, in part five he suggests that if you want to be happy, you should run far away from him, and in the final section he claims that disaster is his name, he comes on like a plague and he wreaks havoc wherever he goes. There’s no light in this one. Interestingly, he makes several references in part three to the lyrics of “Naked in the Afternoon,” and somehow makes them sound even darker.
Somehow, though, the brightness of the strings in standard tuning works to soften the deeply intimate pain at the heart of this piece. Though it is oddly filmed, it’s very much worth watching the DVD of this show, as it was our first glimpse of what the Rep looks like performing his solo acoustic material. It’s revelatory. The Rep could not have picked a better setting for his first solo gig. In a lot of ways, London Tuesday is when the Rep fully came out of the shadows, giving us Jandek as we have always known him.
Listen to “No Mind Was a Good Mind Part Three.”
#56. Skirting the Edge (2008).
As if to present a direct contrast, the Rep closed out 2008 with another acoustic studio session, one that contains none of the life that was present on London Tuesday. Skirting the Edge is a weary-sounding album, with four long songs that stick to dreary tempos and sparse playing. It is the kind of album that would make me genuinely worried about the Rep’s mental health and safety. My hope is that making these albums is therapeutic for him.
Skirting the Edge is another utterly hopeless piece of work. The centerpiece is the 23-minute “I Know My Name,” and here is the couplet it is named after: “Pain and suffering and anguish is my name, just call me anything, but I know my name.” The entire album is this dark. “The Playground” begins with an attack by “hostile stone-throwing savages” and ends with the Rep pleading to trade lives with someone else. “Last Sunlight” ends the record with the Rep disappearing forever: “I say bye bye bye, I say bye bye…”
This is a difficult listen, not solely because the playing and tone are the same for 51 minutes. It’s so bereft of light, even in its physical sound – the Rep’s voice is notably downcast here – and so intimate that it’s hard to sit through. Jandek is often depressing, but Skirting the Edge is oppressively so, in total contrast to the playful live shows. Even London Tuesday, which is stylistically and thematically the same as this, sounds more alive. If this is how he feels alone at home, then I am glad he has the live shows to sustain him.
Listen to “I Know My Name.”
#57. Hasselt Saturday (2009).
The extended piece captured on Hasselt Saturday, “The Places You Left Me,” is similarly dark, but the novel performance style does a lot to leaven the depression. Recorded on November 12, 2005 at the Kunstencentrum Belgie in Belgium, “The Places You Left Me” is performed solely by the Rep on piano and vocals. If you can imagine “The Cell” without any of the supporting bass and percussion flourishes, you have the right idea. And if you want to know why I admire the Rep, the fact that he got in front of people and played this without a net is one reason.
It’s not that the Rep cannot play piano. He’s certainly not practiced or polished at it, but he has a single-note roaming-fingers style that feels unique to him. It’s that he took this rudimentary skill and showcased it for a solid hour, before an audience. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do this. “The Places You Left Me” is entirely improvised, musically speaking, and full of pauses and moments where the Rep seems unsure of where his hands should go next. But he pulls it off.
Lyrically, this piece is about the blues. Had this lyric been set to a standard 12-bar Buddy Guy rocker, they would have worked just as well. He vividly describes his own suicide two different ways, once with poison and once by laying across train tracks, and the blues tradition he is working in makes these seem like the hyperbole they are. He’s down, though, missing someone who has left, and at the end he welcomes the embrace of darkness: “Welcome, black night, help me forget all the joy I ever knew…” The Rep sings these words in the same breathy tone he used for “The Cell,” and the almost pleasant nature of the whole thing belies its jagged heart.
I continue to be impressed at the variety of ways the Rep finds to expand the idea of Jandek on stage. Hasselt Saturday isn’t, I think, anything that listeners could have predicted, and I love that those attending Jandek shows never know what they’re going to get. The only drawback of this album is that it is the first Jandek show not to be concurrently released on DVD. I’m sure it was an experience to be in the room for this.
Listen to “The Places You Left Me Part One.”
#58. Helsinki Saturday (2009).
Speaking of unexpected, there’s this, recorded a week later at the Gloria Cultural Arena in Finland, as part of the 2005 Avanto Festivaali. It is a single piece, just over an hour long, called “Sleeping in the Dawn,” and it pairs the Rep on piano with harpist Iro Haarla. It is fully instrumental, essentially an improvised lullaby, and it has a sweet, almost new-age-y feel to it. I have legitimately used Helsinki Saturday as drifting off to sleep music, and it fits that purpose beautifully.
The surprise, for me, is how long the Rep and Haarla manage to keep this piece going. The first major shift, which sounds like the Rep going for just the black keys, happens about six minutes in, and the pair manage several such changes throughout. I’d never mistake “Sleeping in the Dawn” for a composed piece of music, but Haarla is able to roll with the Rep’s unpracticed whims well enough that it can sometimes feel mapped out. One oddity about this recording: it was obviously done from the audience, as the chatter starts at a low boil and gets louder and louder as the performance rolls on. Rather than distracting, though, I find the low-level audience noise adds to the ambience. I have no idea why, but it does.
If you found the 20-odd people who heard Ready for the House in 1978 and told them that about 30 years later, this same artist would perform an hour-long piano and harp piece in Helsinki in front of a crowd, none of them would have believed you. It’s a genuine surprise, another surprisingly effective plot twist in the Jandek story. May there be many more.
#59. Not Hunting for Meaning (2009).
After the desultory Skirting the Edge, I think even the Rep might have recognized the limits of his solo acoustic studio style. Not Hunting for Meaning is the first attempt to shake things up since probably Khartoum, and for a short while it’s effective. This album begins with the closest thing to a pair of Jandek hit singles, two short songs played with a fire and aggression we’ve not heard from the Rep in some time.
Both of these songs are unhinged in the best way. “Front Porch Shimmy” is a shout-along, a string-breaker that is almost danceable. “I got you, baby, a thousand times, it’s turning my mind…” And “Stay Me Here” features the most unrestrained, absurd vocal in years, the Rep reaching for a high-wire falsetto on nearly every line. This one, too, features some powerhouse strumming, the Rep proclaiming “I don’t liiiiiiike to go oooooout” over it. The effect is surprisingly engaging, even if it brings you to the edge of laughter.
Unfortunately, that’s only nine minutes, and the remaining 30 are taken up with a long and winding ode called “Silent Wander.” This one returns to the more sedate playing style, though still not as hopeless-sounding as Skirting the Edge, and it’s a lengthy meander through poetic imagery. And it’s fine, but it goes on forever and offers nothing that previous acoustic albums have not. After the promise of the first two tracks, “Silent Wander” fills the rest of this album with one long fizzle to the end. Still, Not Hunting for Meaning is the most exciting and interesting studio album in some time, and a sign that the Rep is ready to throw some curve balls in this setting as well.
Listen to “Front Porch Shimmy.”
#60. Portland Thursday (2009).
If you can imagine Robert Smith of the Cure fronting a proto-metal band, you might come close to envisioning what Portland Thursdaysounds like. Recorded at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon on April 20, 2006, this one finds the Rep throwing down with some true luminaries. Emil Amos, solo artist and drummer for minimalist metal band Om, is behind the kit, while Sam Coomes, one half of the band Quasi (and one-time player in Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser), is on bass. That is a rhythm section to die for, and they lay down a rock-steady, relentless foundation.
And over this, the Rep plays electric guitar, but his tone is absolutely magnificent. It is a clean, reverbed, cavernous thing, and the textures he conjures with it are sublime. With Amos and Coomes providing the power, the Rep doesn’t need distortion to make a tremendous amount of noise. The first four songs of the set fill up disc one, as each one expands to almost a quarter of an hour, the band stretching out and giving the Rep all the space he needs to improvise in his inimitable way. “I Asked You Please” is heavy beyond belief, Coomes and Amos beating a thudding metal riff into submission while the Rep’s playing explodes from the contours.
The entire two-hour set is something to behold. “Trouble Away” is a crawling thing that makes great use of the Rep’s brand of lead guitar playing, “Come True” is an absolute powerhouse, Coomes’s sluge-metal bass line driving the whole enterprise. The rhythm section is so solid that whatever the Rep is doing, it sounds right – his flights of fancy are beholden to no key or time signature, but they never sound wrong or out of place. The atmosphere of the whole thing works.
The highlight here is “Whose Mister is This,” a slinky, smoky number built on a restrained foundation, and featuring singers Liz Harris and Jessica Dennison repeating the title phrase in harmony. They sound simultaneously sexy and creepy here, trading off lines with the Rep as he sings about how quantum physics gets him down. It’s puzzling and captivating, and clearly was thought out beforehand, not just improvised on the night. I would love to see footage of the rehearsal session to see how this one came together.
Portland Thursday is another that would be on my short list of favorites. The Rep sounds energized to be working with terrific musicians who obviously get his vibe. I never in a thousand years could have predicted that Jandek would one day sound like this, but here it is, and it’s pretty awesome.
Listen to “I Like You Too.”
Next week, albums 61-80, which will bring us up to 2015. Some remarkable stuff among those records.
See you in line Tuesday morning.